‘Dispatches From Elsewhere’ Buries Hopeful Messages in a Dense Puzzle

TV has quickly caught on to that lingering feeling these days that the world makes less and less sense, and AMC’s “Dispatches From Elsewhere” captures that feeling by getting totally confusing on purpose. This isn’t particularly a negative on the show, which is entertaining and works as one big brain teaser. It happens to be the latest project from actor Jason Segel, who has always enjoyed dabbling in the weird and quirky, now producing a show that basks completely in weirdness. 

A vintage ‘80s tune introduces us to the title and to a deep-voiced narrator, Octavio (Richard E. Grant), who proceeds to introduce us to the gallery of characters who will be the focus of each episode. First we meet Peter (Segel), a cubicle slave who spends his days staring at a computer and his nights alone watching “Law & Order: SVU” reruns. Then one night Peter comes across an ad for the Jejune Institute, a sort of think tank offering a positive revelation for your purpose in life. But when Peter visits Jejune and undergoes a strange initiation session he is lured out by members of the Elsewhere Society, a radical gathering that believes Jejune has nefarious plans. This is how Peter finally makes friends, including Simone (Eve Lindley), a museum docent, the older but jumpy Janice (Sally Field) and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), who is quite rich but no one knows how. Peter and Simone soon get locked together in a quest issued by the enigmatic, unseen guru of the Elsewhere Society to find a mysterious woman named Clara in order to begin moving against the Jejune Institute.

Much of “Dispatches From Elsewhere” feels borrowed from the current wave of dark, near-dystopian anthology shows now in vogue, especially “Black Mirror” and “Room 104.” Octavio’s intros at the beginning and end of every episode are certainly a wink to Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone.” Like all of those titles this one plays with the idea that nothing is at seems and we are wandering artificial realities. But if some of those other shows dive into despair, this one balances the darkness with lighter undertones. There’s more of a positive message about freeing yourself from a monotonous existence. Segel, who wrote and directed the pilot, has designed “Dispatches From Elsewhere” as a neo-anthology. The first four episodes all shift focus to one of the main characters, yet they are all linked by the main plot involving the rivalry between the Elsewhere Society and Jejune. After meeting Peter we spend an episode with Simone, who is dealing with finding love as she also undergoes transitioning. Then we spend time with Janice, hilariously played as a nervous type by Sally Field and Fredwynn, played with sophisticated charm by Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000. 

What works best in this show is its style and characters. The plot itself is quite hard to decipher. Even after the first four episodes you’re not entirely sure what the dueling institutions are all about. The driving narrative device is that the four main characters are caught in a “game” being run by Elsewhere around the city where various clues have to be unlocked in order to find this enigmatic Clara. But during the entire process Peter begins to find new life and courage, even some boldness to get closer to Simone who is terrified of initiating anything. This leads to some heartfelt moments like Simone using a megaphone to give Peter a heartfelt message during an LGBTQ demonstration. 

It’s become common now to reference “80s vintage” when reviewing new shows and films. The nostalgia wave continues in “Dispatches From Elsewhere.” The opening titles and theme song are straight out of 1985 and Octavio’s opening monologues look out of a nostalgic experiment like “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” When Peter enters the Jejune Institute he sits down in front of an old television in a darkened room, watching a video of Octavio that looks pulled from VHS. Camp has gained a new respect in mainstream culture and it shows in a series like this.

The fractured, cryptic style of “Dispatches From Elsewhere” fits perfectly with it being a weekly show. If you were to attempt a full binge constant notes and recaps would be necessary. However it’s not a chore to watch. With good actors and a driving energy it works like a fun puzzle. It’s a dark brain teaser that acknowledges reality can feel loopy these days, but not all hope is lost.

Dispatches From Elsewhere” season one premieres March 1 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.